Monday, April 27, 2020

Coronavirus Missives from Spain, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan

As published at Smirking Chimp, Unz Review and TruthSeeker, 4/27/20:

In South Korea, you can still get on buses and trains, or just wander around for miles at your leisure, so yesterday, I was in Gimhae. Like all Korean cities, it unashamedly flaunts nondescript, skyscraping condos and sterile, soulless churches that surely prove there is no God, for there’s no way he would tolerate so much brazenly ghastly architecture for his Jesusfuckin’ houses, man.

But that’s a minor gripe. There’s much to admire here, such as public mini toilets for toddlers, deep fried battered hot dogs dusted with sugar, long distance buses that always leave exactly on time, brain-scrambling English that’s stronger than paper acid and the eminently lickable rapper Soyeon cooing, “Is it call from hell?”

Gratuitously indulged, pampered and forgiven by the Spring sun, I lingered at a Gimhae playground. Watching the lovely kids, I noticed one girl had this on her jacket, “AVEC PLAISIR.” Western languages are cool here, so you’ll see many Koreans with some occidental declaration on their clothing, often nonsensical. “Between Contraries Relation,” “Idealist Gleam Clasher” or “tu seras pour moj [sic] unique au monde, et je serai pour toi unique au monde,” etc. Waiting for a train, a tall, lanky and clearly retarded boy had “INDIVIDUAL” on his stylish wind breaker. His mom had to chase him around as he marched all over the platform, grumbling to himself. It was touching, such love.

Though I’m sure the small girl had no idea what’s on her back, it was apt, for much of what we do is pleasurable, or was, though the sensations have mostly evaporated already, leaving merely thoughts.

Exiting an unprecedented era of excess and waste, we’re plunged into a much more constrained universe. Quite suddenly, life has become a nostalgia for living. Surely this can’t last, but don’t expect a recovery. With the global economic collapse just beginning, protests, riots and desperate fleeing will only intensify, and we’ll be lucky to escape war, for whatever that's likely to erupt will be deceptively framed and won't solve any of the hoi polloi's problems.

Meanwhile, all is still relatively calm. As beaten down Americans wait for hours to receive emergency food, Nancy Pelosi Antoinette beamingly shows the world her stash of artisinal ice cream. With masks ubiquitous, smiles have mostly disappeared, but you can still hear laughters, if muffled. Wounded, the economy will lurch along in stops and starts, when not crawling on all fours. We'll inhabit the afterimage of affluence.

I’ve had beer with three of the four correspondents in this batch of Coronavirus Missives, but that was once upon a time…

Jay Johnston, a 55-year-old American English teacher in Zaragoza, Spain

We are just passing the 40 days and 40 nights zenith of our quarantine in Spain. And it's raining. But that's good for this area.

The quarantine has been extended until May 9. My friends and students in the medical biz say don't hold your breath. Also let kids under 13 out today with a chaperone. Terrible failure. The end is not nigh.

Some good things have come from this shutdown. It seems folks have gotten a handle on standing in line and using a bidet. I've found I can stay at home and be relaxed. My relationship with the son I live with has improved and I'm eating better even though I'm broke.

I have been an English as a second language teacher here in Zaragoza for around 20 years. We commonly jump between working for private academies and for ourselves. At the end of the last academic year, the company I was teaching for went out of business. This was unfortunate, obviously, for a number of reasons but life goes on. I went on unemployment, which is a pretty good system here, was able to keep some of my private classes and set my sights on opening my own business. Skipping past the ups and downs, I finally found a space and made an investment. In February. Did the interior myself, unemployment almost gone. Impeccable timing.

Many many others are in a very bad way. The economy was fragile to begin with. Civil servants are still being paid (working or not), of course. Many people, such as my oldest, are able to work from home. Some have contracts which can't be terminated. But others were fired before the government supposedly outlawed it. There's always a loophole. The self-employed are able to pay less tax and defer permit fees until a later date. All tourism and pleasure activity on hold. Many medium to bigger size companies are waiting on money to pay employees under a condition called ERTE that is from the European Union. But Spain hasn't released that money yet because the E.U. has put them under a microscope as to distributing the funds correctly. Banks and other loansharks are ready to give. And eat.

I've had it up to my tits with it all. I'm tired of applauding every night at 19:58 in community-appreciation when the government seems way out of it's depth, can't follow it's own rules, spends shitloads on faulty products/equipment, actively pursues widening the rift (which has existed for a long time) between all parties and citizens and still finds time to give themselves a pay rise. And these are the supposed socialists! Par for the course too common. That goes for all camps. They're all the same. A student asked me the other day if I preferred security or freedom, a choice put to us in disguise. I said both. My responsibility is to treat freedom with respect.

Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow. I try to stay optimistic. The future is bleak. The government did pause dislodging people. The utility companies and my landlords say fuck you. Infections are beginning to subside. Waiting on the second wave. Time to let some people out, they'll behave. Male/female dramatically spits on street with child in hand. Don't worry, we've got pictures of them. Covid-19 has opened the floodgates but the spillway is already full.

Hypocrisy has been around forever, but it feels new and fresh. The end justifies the means, join or die.

I think I'll just keep on truckin', rooting around for gold. Gotta wake up and look at myself in the mirror every day. And cook.

T, an American soldier in his 40’s who’s been stationed in South Korea for a year

I tried to avoid being assigned to Korea for years expecting the worse and have been pleasantly surprised at how advanced and great of a place Korea is to live. The only negative I can think of is the air pollution. Most days it is not that bad but it is noticeable, especially after a morning run.

The Korean Government and Korean people have shown how mature, advanced, democratic nations react and resolve problems. The ROK Government and Korean citizens reacted with reason, logic, and base their actions on scientific facts instead of uniformed emotions. They have done an admirable job implementing creative techniques to prevent and reduce the spread of infections without placing the nation under House Arrest and Lockdown, terms previously used only for prisoners.

The economy in Korea continues to function, although it is export driven so who knows how much life it has left in it. Individuals retained their liberty and freedom to choose when and where they go. I understand most Koreans did responsibly choose not to go out as often. They even conducted an election and implemented measures and social distancing protocols to allow quarantined and infected citizens to vote, while our own media perpetuates the rumor we won’t be able to have an election. “Everything has changed. Things can never go back the way they used to be. This is the new normal.” What a bunch of bullshit.

A few places and activities were closed by the Korean government. Schools, recently night clubs and bars in Seoul, and a few parks were closed where large crowds gather to see trees and flowers in bloom, but for the most part everything has remained open and South Korea has one of the lowest infection and death rates.

COIV-19 has changed my work quite a bit. Many systems and processes we have functioned well and without constant oversight and micromanagement. COVID changed that. Starting in mid - late February everything started getting much more complicated in how we operate and conduct daily business. Now there is added complexity in almost everything we do as a result of either social distancing requirements or policy changes that resolve one problem but creates several new problems. This results in some long work hours, but helps keep me out of trouble.

In late March and early April the majority of personnel I work with telecommuted to reduce risk of infection. This resulted in some unique challenges. Never did I think I would have home office working in the military.

The military community is currently limited from many nonessential activities, but restrictions are gradually being relaxed as infections are reduced. Hopefully in another couple of weeks life returns back to normal; for the summer at least..

Seeing the US from my international perspective, it looks like we are causing irreparable damage to the economy as our country binge watches the op ed talk shows we call news in a media induced panic. I think we are overreacting to compensate for not preparing when there were warning signs coming out of China. I don’t blame the government for this so much as question why the medical community and for profit businesses didn’t start ordering and stocking up on the necessary supplies as they saw the indicators and trend lines in China and Korea in January and February?

But they didn’t, so now our low information voters require officials to be seen Actively Doing Something, even if it is not beneficial so long as they are not perceived as being passive or uncaring. The problem is their solutions make bad problems worse and will cause much more pain and suffering to many more Americans in the long run than if they had taken an approach similar to what the Koreans have done. The news is constantly hyping disaster porn to up their ratings, which completes the circle and a large amount of the sheeple have turned to public shaming methods. The Taliban could take lessons from us Puritans.

The media and our officials very rarely report the numbers in context. 45,000 deaths in the US is high, especially compared to the 10,728 cases and 242 deaths in Korea. But, how many deaths do we usually have in an average month from other diseases?

I also question the numbers and wish there was detailed, fact-based reporting on the methodology of determining how a person died of COVID when we hear there is a lack of available testing kits. The message I see when I watch American news is Be Afraid whether it is COVID or any other topic. Rather than reporting about geriatrics lives being cut tragically short, they could do some analysis about the statistics.

A better method would be to focus our limited resources and efforts on the at-risk population rather than bankrupting the entire country by placing workers under House Arrest and providing Welfare “Stimulus” to Millionaires. As a result of our Lockdown many individuals are unemployed. Rather than let low wage blue collar workers earn their paychecks, trillions of aid has been given to publicly traded large corporations with share holders. None of this makes any sense.

COVID will most likely be back in the fall and one of the best things to do is be healthy when it hits so you recover. I admit my bias leans toward George Carlins comedy bit “Germs,” and Bill Mahr’s recent Real Time episode where he talked about how the disease is definitely highly contagious and deadly to many people with other health issues. It has even killed a few young healthy people in their prime. However, Mahr made the argument that we should be concerned not panicked. It does not make sense to put 330 million at risk for many more difficult problems to protect a couple hundred thousand.

Unfortunately politics are so polarizing right now that our uninformed public agrees / disagrees with a statement based on who said it versus the information contained in the statement. So to not get pissed off I mostly try to limit consumption of TV and go for a walk outside and enjoy springtime in Korea. Thank goodness the gyms opened back up last week.

James Tan, a 40-year-old consultant living in Johor Bahru, Malaysia

We have been in lockdown here in Malaysia since 18 March 2020. All non-essential businesses are not allowed to operate and the general population is confined to their homes.

Everyone's worried about contracting covid, but they are also worried about their livelihood. Small business owners and daily wage workers are the most affected by the loss of income due to the lockdown.

I'm less affected because the firm I work at has protocols for working from home and the message we are sending to our clients is that it's business as usual for us.

But can it ever really be business as usual again?

I think social distancing will be the new norm for at least the next half year. And it will accelerate the acceptance of working from home for big corporates.

I was never a big fan of the concept of working from home. Even for someone like me with introverted and anti-social tendencies, nothing beats the personal touch.

But it's businesses focusing on the "personal touch" that will be most affected by this pandemic.

I'm talking about the pubs, hostess bars, KTVs and massage parlors. :D

I don't think these establishments will be allowed to resume operations in the next 3 to 6 months. The people employed by these businesses will be out of work. I worry for them as they have little formal education, no other means of livelihood and live in the grey zones of society.

In any case, I doubt the small business owners that are the main clientele of these businesses will have much spare cash to splurge on these simple pleasures.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the government's handling of the situation thus far. Most people think of our politicians as a bunch of corrupt goons, but the main man in charge of handling the pandemic is a senior civil servant, Malaysia's director general of the health ministry, Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah,

His calm demeanor, common-sense advice has given us confidence that the government is on top of things. And Malaysia's covid curve does seem to have flattened significantly in the past week, giving us hope that the lockdown measures will be eased in the coming weeks.

What this pandemic has done is to demonstrate the ineptitude of western governments. I am disgusted by the way they are trying to shift the blame and am even more repulsed by how the mainstream media parrots their groundless accusations.

What is it about the western mindset that makes their leaders incapable of self-reflection? Do they not have a sense of shame?

Come to think of it, I observe the same behavior in my day-to-day business dealings. But I guess this is what politics is about.

I'm too naive to play this game.

James Weitz, a 45-year-old American writer temporarily staying in Taiwan

I’m a novelist and travel writer. My particular genre of travel writing is literary tourism: articles covering both popular tourist locations and books that are set in those locations. This means I live out of hostels and guesthouses as I jump from place to place around Asia. But Saigon is kind of my base, the place to read the next book and plan the next trip, which this time was going to mirror Norman Lewis’s amazing travels in “A Dragon Apparent” through south Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Then the Wuhan Virus ruined everything.

In early March, the news was worrisome, especially for travelers in third world countries with sub-par medical systems in the kinds of far-flung places Lewis liked to visit. I decided to wait it out in Saigon, and while I was waiting I started reading reports about Taiwan’s success fighting the virus. Having lived and worked in Taipei several years earlier, I figured I could visit some friends there and get some articles written, then later come back to southeast Asia. So, on March 17th, I booked a ticket for Taipei leaving the next afternoon.

The airport on the 18th was eerily empty. But the procedure was routine: A polite young woman behind the check-in desk took my passport and asked me how many bags I was checking, where I was going, whether I had any prohibited items in my luggage, etc. But as she was inputting my information, she looked up and said, “You must quarantine, sir.”

I wasn’t sure whether I heard her right. Quarantine? Where? When? How long?

“You will have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Taipei, sir.”


“The Taiwanese government has announced it today.”

An American man at the check-in desk next to mine was told the same. We quickly searched the internet and found announcements on the Taiwanese government’s CDC website, in both English and Chinese, that said quarantine measures would not begin until the 19th, which would be the next day. We showed this to the staff behind the desks, who ignored it as they handed us papers to sign that said we understood that we would need to quarantine. Then we did one of the things that Americans are known for in some parts of Asia: we started a pointless argument.

“We are just giving you the information we have, sir.”

“It must be mistaken. You see, here it says quarantine begins on the 19th.”

“We can only give you the information we have, sir.”

“Could the information be wrong?”

“This is the only information we have, sir.”

I considered whether to stay in Vietnam or head on to Taiwan, even if maybe it meant a mandatory two-week quarantine. Where exactly would I stay? I had a reservation for a single room for a few nights in an underground hostel in Taipei, a place that used to be listed in guidebooks but that the city would no longer license because of code violations. It was by far the cheapest place in town, known mainly by word of mouth between travelers. At least I knew the woman who ran the place, and with it being low-season I was pretty sure I’d be able to stay there for the full two weeks, if need be.

I went ahead and checked my bags, went through security, and then, while standing in line for my exit stamp, a text announcement buzzed on my mobile screen from the hostel owner in Taipei: “Please don’t come to stay here go to Hotel better sorry.”

My jaw clenched. This woman who had known me for years as a regular guest was suddenly cancelling a reservation because … because why exactly? Would my presence damage her high-class operation?

At the gate the plane was delayed two or three hours due to a blown tire. It had been scheduled to arrive in Taipei at 10:20 PM. But now we’d likely be arriving in the wee hours of the 19th. Someone told me it was the date of departure not arrival that was used to determine quarantine and whether foreigners would be allowed to enter the country after the 18th. Nothing was adding up. I texted a friend in Taipei, who responded: “James tomorrow no more flights from Nam to here, and YES will have to go into quarantine On the news now – 23 new cases from overseas travelers in Taiwan JUST today.”

I was probably going to need a place to stay for two weeks. The day before, the hostel owner had asked me to wear a mask and a disposable plastic poncho on the airplane to minimize the risk of infection. Perhaps a picture of how goofy I looked after faithfully following instructions might evoke some sympathy.

I got another message, the gist of which was “you stay on first floor, no come visit me.”

On the flight I sat next to a middle-aged Han Chinese man whom I assumed was Taiwanese. He told me he was from Malaysia. Oh, Malaysia! I explained I had just been there last year writing about Anthony Burgess’s first novels, The Malayan Trilogy, and Carl Hoffman’s The Last Wild Men of Borneo. Borneo was beautiful and Penang was a charming old place. Indeed, my editor had told me I should move to Penang because lots of writers were moving there. But, I had also been to Kota Bahru, a city of 300,000 that lacked a movie theater because the government believed it was immoral to allow men and women to sit close together in the dark. And there was no place to buy alcohol except for a Chinese-run bar/restaurant, where it was illegal for Muslims to enter. It certainly seemed like a country of contrasts. He responded by telling me about how when he was young, he had tried to get an education license to open a private Chinese (student not language) school. The bureaucrat in charge said no and pointed to his skin. “Too dark,” he had told him. (The man beside me was a fairly dark-skinned Han Chinese man, but the indigenous Malay Muslims are usually darker. I interpreted the bureaucrat’s comment as petty racial vengeance.) He explained to me that Chinese were not allowed to start new private schools and could not get construction permits to add buildings on their campuses, even when paying with their own money. Forty years earlier there was about an even balance of Chinese and Muslims in the population, he said, but now there were about twice as many Muslims because of different birth rates, laws prohibiting those born Muslim to convert to other religions, and because Chinese were emigrating for work and education. He himself had moved to Taiwan for business.

The plane arrived after midnight on the 19th. As far as I could tell, the date wouldn’t really have mattered one way or another. The government would have done whatever it wanted. We were all instructed to line up like lemmings and register for quarantine. If any passenger was contagious, waiting together in a hallway for two and a half hours was probably the most effective way to ensure community spread. Once at the registration desk, I had to give a phone number, so I wrote the number of the hostel owner. The man who was processing my registration called her and she confirmed that I would quarantine in “a private room she was renting to me just as a friend”, but she wanted to know if I could move to a hotel the next day. “Yes,” the man said. He waved me along and I went through immigration. The entry stamp on my passport read the 18th, even though it was already well past 3:00 AM on the 19th.

As bothersome and inconvenient as my situation was, I felt lucky compared to a British man I befriended while in line. He had just finished a two-week quarantine in Saigon after leaving Hong Kong, which had no direct flights back to Taiwan, where his Taiwanese wife was waiting for him, after he had been deported a year earlier for illegally tutoring a few students on the side, even though he had a work visa and a full-time job. A few students!

It was around 4:30 in the morning when I finally arrived at the hostel. The door to my room was open and the keys were on the bed. The room had a bathroom but no kitchen or refrigerator; it was on ground-level with a window that faced a busy alley. My options for food would be delivery fare, unless I was kicked out to a hotel with room service.

The next day, the hostel owner tried to follow through with her plan. She had set up a room for me in a hotel down the street, but, despite what she was told on the phone the night before, the government was not sure whether they would allow me to break quarantine for the few minutes of travel it would take to get there. They would need to approve a vehicle for the purpose, and it would need to be disinfected after use. She was going to let me stay a second night while the bureaucracy had a think. And as this was all happening, she did something that probably did not help her cause. She decided to make a trip of several miles to some popular hot springs on the outskirts of city, carrying her phone with her, whose number was registered to me, and whose signal was being broadcast 24/7 to a computer at the local police station. The system at the station suddenly began flashing red, alerting that I was bathing in a crowded public bath in the mountains. Or so it was explained to me by the two confused officers who appeared at my door. No, no, I told them that I had definitely been in the room continually the entire day, and moreover I had registered my new Taiwan SIM card by calling a government department at a number that had been provided to me at the airport. But that government department apparently had not notified them. The police also got word from their station that my landlady had been reached and was telling the same story. They seemed to consider it a plausible explanation, and I was given an oral warning.

The next day the government declined to allow me to move, which left the landlady no choice but to let me stay. But she turned out not too bad after all, picking up some decent food for me here and there. On the third day the police called but I had only gotten the vibrate function on my phone to work, so I missed the call. Only nine minutes passed before I noticed and called them back, but the police were already on their way again. From then on the police called daily. I’m no good navigating my smart phone settings, but I finally found the right one for the ringer. Thank God. Inconveniencing the police a third time would have meant a fine and probably a permanent record.

The actual quarantine was not too bad. I read some books. I had the internet. The hostel’s TV worked for five days. I spent some time getting the Italian translation of my own book ready for market. The first English version of Gonzo Global Inc. was shadowbanned, because it is a legal satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. I suppose the boobs at Facebook and Instagram might have been worried that it would offend Mexicans, and we can’t have that.

I also exercised pretty regularly, pacing back and forth 75 minutes each day. And with the quality of delivery food being very low, I lost a good 8 pounds.

I had to handwash all my clothes and hang them inside. They took forever to dry. With twelve hours left in my quarantine, a friend hung a couple shirts just outside my window so I’d have clean, dry clothes the next day. A neighbor called my landlady and said she had seen me outside and had taken a photo of me and was considering calling the police. Turned out she had only taken a photo of my shirts and guessed it was me. At least she didn’t call the police on my friend.


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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I lived mostly in the US from 1975 until 2018, but have returned to Vietnam. I've also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), a novel, Love Like Hate (2010), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), and six collections of poems, with a Collected Poems apparently cancelled by Chax Press from external pressure. I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in Tokyo, London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.